Southern Tradition and Hypocrisy | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Southern Tradition and Hypocrisy


Joe Atkins

OXFORD—Way back in 1988, I sat across from Strom Thurmond in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., and listened as he explained his opposition to federal anti-lynching laws and any other encroachment on states' rights during his long career.

"I felt it was dangerous to shift it all to Washington," the then-85-year-old U.S. senator and former Dixiecrat presidential candidate from South Carolina told me. "Lynching was nothing but murder. All states had laws against murder. ... I've never had any feelings against minorities."

Never mind that Thurmond, who died at 101 in 2003, led the Dixiecrat revolt out of the Democratic Party in 1948 and into the Republican Party in the 1960s largely as a reaction against civil rights legislation. Never mind that he was a segregationist superstar during much of the Civil Rights Movement.

Thurmond's disdain for the federal government that provided him a paycheck through much of his life was in classic southern tradition. As far back as the 1830s, another South Carolinian, John C. Calhoun, led the so-called "nullification" effort to allow states to "nullify" federal laws on tariffs and other issues. It took a fellow southerner, President Andrew Jackson, to put the lid on that campaign after sending troops down to Charleston.

The tradition is going strong today. Southern conservatives in Congress deserve much of the blame for the recent federal government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion. In the U.S. House vote to re-open government, 73 southern Republicans voted "No," and only 18 voted "Yes," according to Zack Beauchamp in ThinkProgress. The much-talked-about Tea Party leading the charge against government speaks with a decidedly southern accent.

Yet who have these southern leaders represented through the years? Calhoun and his fellow nullifiers risked civil war in large part to defend planters worried that higher tariffs would cost them British customers. Three decades later, hundreds of thousands of southern farm boys went to war to defend the right of the same planters to own slaves.

When Thurmond and his vice-presidential candidate, Fielding Wright of Mississippi, led the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, a major plank in their platform was opposition to organized labor. Like their predecessors, their hot-button issue may have been race, but they were also determined to protect the interests of the southern business and political elite.

Today, the Tea Party rank and file rants against the federal government, but just try to take their Social Security and Medicare away from them. Thanks to the demonization of not only Uncle Sam but also labor unions by Fox News and its counterparts in Mississippi and elsewhere, the progeny of those same southern farm boys who fought for slavery think they now have to fight for the rights of business owners and corporate CEOs to enrich themselves at the expense of a docile and voiceless workforce.

A South African delegation led by Cedric Gina, president of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, visited the Jackson area earlier this month and was shocked at the uphill fight Nissan workers in Canton have to wage just to exercise their legal right to a union election. "We think this is not supposed to be happening in a so-called First World country, a so-called bastion of democracy," Gina told me in a telephone interview. "To be so fearful, the workers, with no intervention. This is not supposed to be happening."

Workers at the Nissan plant in Canton say they've been subjected to repeated meetings with managers who threaten a plant closure and lost jobs if they opt to join the United Auto Workers. Although well paid by Mississippi's low standards, most of them have gone years without a pay raise and are subjected to arbitrary decisions by management on health and pension benefit changes, work hours and working conditions.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has gone on record saying he supports outside groups that help keep unions out of his state. He's probably happy now that the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has issued a special notice to Nissan workers in Canton warning them of the horrors of joining together and speaking with a united voice.

After a majority of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., indicated their support for a company-and-union-backed, German-style works council at the plant, the same foundation filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging UAW coercion. The UAW says the claims are ridiculous.

A thread that runs through southern history even stronger than race is class. The ruling class in the South doesn't tolerate challenges to its rule well—whether that challenge comes from united black people or from united working people.

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js1976 6 years, 11 months ago

"The UAW says the claims are ridiculous."

Seriously?!?! What do you expect them to do, admit to using forceful tactics against workers? These claims have been raised by workers at the Chatanooga plant, not by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

So it is obvious you support the claims made by Nissan employees wanting a union voice, yet dismiss the claims made by VW employees resisting union representation. Hipocrisy indeed.


donnaladd 6 years, 11 months ago

I'm actually pretty neutral on this topic, js, but a point needs to be made: You seem to be doing the opposite of what you accuse Joe of doing. Believing one side and not the other. It's something humans do all the time, and that's not really the definition of hypocrisy.

The point is to build a good case and convince people. The above is an opinion column. If you don't agree with it, try building your own case. That's how it works.


js1976 6 years, 11 months ago

I may not fit precisely fit the definition, but he is encouraging readers to believe the claims made by automotive employees yet doesn't practice the same behavior in regards to others.

I interact with Nissan employees daily and have yet to hear of the constant issues the union organizers claim are common practice. Having never worked in the auto sector, I really can't say if the union is needed or not. I do however find it odd that you only hear outsiders like Joe or union organizers supporting the need for representation.


donnaladd 6 years, 11 months ago

js, again, trying to refute an opinion columnist (who, in this case, happens to be a very good journalist) but complaining that he is voicing an opinion is rather counterproductive and a bit silly.

As for Nissan employees,">we ran a large cover story with employees quoted in there. Certainly, there are employees who want to unionize even if no one has walked up to you and told you that.


js1976 6 years, 11 months ago

Donna, I'm not trying to refute anyone's opinion. What I find counterproductive are people like this (regardless of his journalism credentials) that tend to pick and choose sides with very litte evidence to support their case.

I also find it a "bit silly" that the comparison is made between slavery supporters and union opposition. I'm not a big fan on unions, so does that throw me in the ranks with the "southern farm boys who fought for slavery"?


OpenEyes 6 years, 11 months ago

Has anyone done a bit of counting when looking at the Nissan workers who want to unionize? You know, as in counting the few dozen (counting employees and everyone else present) who show up to a union rally and compare that number to the 5,000+ total employees at the plant? It's funny how it seems there are more people who don't work there who want a union there than there are employees who want to unionize.

I have a relative who works there, and the last thing on earth he wants is for a union to come to Nissan, because he knows he'll probably lose his job, or at best lose hard-earned money to union dues.

Want to know what happens when an auto plant unionizes? Take a look at Detroit. Take a look at the massive bailouts GM and Chrysler needed just to stay open. Talk to a Detroit Auto worker and ask how well the whole union thing has worked for him.

Nissan won't take a bailout if a union forces its way into Canton. (And make no mistake, unions don't get into businesses with lollipops and rainbows. They get in with force and intimidation.) Nissan will simply cut its losses, pack up and move their plant to another state, leaving more than 5,000 Mississippians without a job.

I took a class taught by Mr. Atkins at Ole Miss. It was one of my favorite classes, and I have a lot of respect for him as a teacher and a journalist. But I think he needs to stop beating this Nissan union drum, do some more study and talk to some more Nissan employees, as well as employees and former employees of unionized auto plants.

There is a big difference between actions that wrongfully prop-up the ruling elite (such as taxpayer-supported bailouts for companies that failed because of their own bad business practices), which Mr. Atkins is claiming anti-union measures do, and actions that keep outsiders (government, unions, banks or anyone else) from wrongfully interfering with a successful business in order to steal money they haven't earned in the name of equality or workers rights or anything else, which is what unions actually do. Sure, unions had their place 100 years ago. Today, we have all the things those unions fought for: federal minimum wage (Nissan workers make wages far above this) and labor laws that cover hours, working conditions and many other aspects which employers like Nissan must follow. Now, unions like UAW are little more than bullies and cheats who ruin good businesses and cost Americans their jobs.


js1976 6 years, 11 months ago

"It's funny how it seems there are more people who don't work there who want a union there than there are employees who want to unionize."

Thank you, my thoughts exactly!


tstauffer 6 years, 11 months ago

It occurs to me that the unions (or, more specifically, the threat of unionization) probably do something that y'all aren't really taking into consideration -- they keep these corporations on their toes, minding their "Ps and Qs."

I toured the Nissan plant recently and came away duly impressed with all of the employee services, health and wellness, etc., as well as the care with which corporate management discusses folks on the line and how they try to create a congenial atmosphere. I came away from that experience wondering what a union might do to help it, and I'm personally not sure it would.

(I speak, by the way, as someone who was technically a member of the UAW for a number of years by virtue of the fact that I belonged to the Writer's Union. It was one of the few ways for a freelance writer to get reasonable access to healthcare insurance -- something Obamacare will likely fix, ironically.)

So before we toss unions under the "necessary 100 years ago" bus, we've got to at least ponder the notion that they probably still play a role today. It may not be the role that the union itself WANTS to play (I'm sure they'd prefer dues) but it does force once to ponder the question -- if the union wasn't on their doorstep, would all of these companies act in exactly the same way that they do toward employees? Or, would they be motivated to do less for their employees in order to maximize shareholder value, given that their employees wouldn't have the option of organizing in response?


NutsAndBolts 6 years, 11 months ago

tstauffer makes a very good point above. The unions, although far from perfect, hold corporations accountable.Take away the threat of unions and Mississippi wages will drop even lower.

I have friends too who work at Nissan. Some like it there. But I hear many more negatives than positives with Nissan using Kelley staff who they don't treat so well.

Question: Why is the Gov. of Mississippi calling the UAW a "cancer". It is interesting that opponents of unions engage in such hateful language. And opponents instead of just saying why they oppose unions many can't resist making a threat - threat of plant closing or dire economic consequences. If they are so convinced that they are right that unions are not needed why are threats and hateful language so necessary? Bullies.


js1976 6 years, 11 months ago

@nutsandbolts, read into the situation in Chatanooga that the columnist referred to. Employees have filed charges claiming the the plant is threatening loss of vehicle production and jobs unless a German-style form of representation was installed (unions). So the pendulum swings both ways in terms of bullying.

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